The JUNO Hall of Fame is the official Who's Who of Canadian music. Walk of Fame honourees Joni Mitchell, Ginette Reno, and Neil Young are all long-standing members, as are dozens of other major stars, ranging from Bryan Adams to Tommy Hunter. Only twice in its history, however, have classical performers been added to the JUNO honour roll. The first was pianist Glenn Gould, the second, Maureen Forrester.
But if Forrester had had her way as a child, the world would have been denied her extraordinary contralto. Growing up in east-end Montréal, she was an inveterate tomboy, much more interested in advancing her prowess on the basketball court than developing her vocal talents. Fortunately, Forrester's mother knew she had a rare and special gift, and ignited her daughter's ambitions.
At age 18, Forrester boldly applied to New York's legendary Juilliard School of Music, only to be rejected out-of-hand because she hadn't completed high school. As Forrester later explained in a CBC interview, "I came home very dejected, and that was my saving grace. I stayed in Montréal, studied privately and actually progressed much faster... I missed a lot of things I might have learned at a school of music, but I've picked them up as I went along."Blessed with one of the all-time great natural voices, Forrester had power and range that were extraordinary. A true contralto, she could plumb baritone depths and conquer coloratura heights with equal ease and beauty. Thankfully, her extraordinary sound has been captured on more than 600 recordings.
It comes as no surprise that Forrester was a popular and frequent guest with all of the world's great orchestras and was feted by such masters as Pablo Casals, Eugene Ormandy, and Leonard Bernstein. But Forrester never limited herself to grand, international stages. Throughout her illustrious career, she crossed the country innumerable times to champion Canadian composers and musicians, and was thrilled at any opportunity to sing beside a single piano for a handful of listeners in some small town.
Passionate in her commitment, not just to music but to all of the arts in Canada, Forrester worked tirelessly on behalf of dozens of cultural organizations, including the Canadian Opera Company, The National Ballet of Canada, the National Film Board, and The Canada Council, which she once chaired. She was awarded many accolades and awards as both singer and spokeswoman, but ranked high among them were her induction as a Companion of the Order of Canada and her Governor General's Award.
For nearly 50 years, Maureen Forrester was acknowledged as Canada's "Grande Dame of Song." Throughout those five decades she remained the personification of grace, elegance, humility, and unflagging good will. Canada couldn't ask for a finer ambassador.
Maureen Forrester died on 16 June 2010, aged 79, in Toronto, after a long battle with dementia.